It’s that time of year again! It’s possible you’ve seen birds that look something like this-
What in the world happened to this Cardinal’s handsome crest? Don’t worry, he doesn’t have some kind of wasting disease! He’s merely molting.
Molting is a natural and regular process where some or all of a bird’s feathers are replaced. A bird’s feathers are extremely important- not only do they allow for flight, but they regulate body temperature and keep the elements away from a bird’s skin. Feathers are much like hair on people- they grow, but aren’t ‘alive’. Feathers become damaged through wear and tear. If a feather is removed, it will grow back- but damaged feathers stay damaged. So they need to be replaced every so often. This is what molting accomplishes- renewal of a vital system.
Many birds molt once a year. Some partially molt again right before mating season to switch into their most colorful feathers. Rarely, a few species molt twice a year (and these birds live in habitats where their feathers get damaged a lot). Molts are often timed to occur after nesting and before migrations (late summer). The reason for this timing is to fall in the lull between the strenuous activity of raising young and flying for thousands of miles. This way there is less stress upon the bird.
Molting takes place gradually over some weeks. This way a bird is not left featherless, flightless and cold, which is what would happen if all of its feathers came off at once. Sometimes different parts of the body molt at different times- for instance, the head and body may molt during a given time, and then the wings molt at a later time. Although birds can be flightless for a brief period, generally the feather loss and replacement is an even process scattered over the bird’s body so that vital functions are not greatly impeded.
The above poor little fellow is a Carolina Wren that I photographed singing in August 2011. Looking very raggedy, I wondered if it had been mauled by a cat! But this is the season for molting, and the bird certainly could sing up a storm and fly well enough. Molting isn’t pretty, but it is essential to get those feathers in great shape for the coming winter.
For some reason, most of the pictures I have of birds molting are of Cardinals. I’m guessing it’s because they are very noticeable when they are missing some feathers.
Here’s a male Cardinal that’s been hanging out in front of my apartment, where I feed the local wildlife the occasional unsalted peanut. I’m calling him ‘Mister Molty’ right now. These pictures were taken yesterday.
Don’t worry, he’ll sooner or later be back to normal, which looks like this:
One of these days I’ll have to talk about the Cardinal family that keeps me company throughout much of the year. They enjoy the easy peanuts I provide, and in turn I get some nice photos of them. Either they are tame, or they’ve trained me well…
Birds with totally bald heads may have something else going on besides molting. For further reading on this subject, here are a couple of links: